PORTLAND, Maine — A high school student in Maine who fled his native Zambia can compete in a U.S. government-funded poetry contest, a federal judge ruled Friday.
The National Endowment for the Arts had blocked the 11th-grader's participation, saying he doesn't meet their U.S. citizenship rules.
Allan Monga, a 19-year-old junior at Deering High School, won Maine's "Poetry Out Loud" contest but initially wasn't allowed to compete nationally because he hasn't yet been granted legal asylum. He and the Portland school district sued the NEA to let him participate in the finals, which start Monday in Washington.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said the school community is ecstatic that Monga is heading to the finals. The teen fled to the U.S. last year and has distinguished himself at school as a poet. Out of 9,500 students from across Maine, he won the March state finals with the poem "In the Desert," by Stephen Crane.
"It feels great to know that Allan is going to have the opportunity to show the world how amazing he is," Botana said. "And it feels great to know that justice is being served."
Melissa Hewey, who represents Monga, said she called him and told him about Judge John Woodcock's ruling.
"Right now he really wants to concentrate on poetry and make us all proud," she said. "He was speechless at first and then just really excited. He just said he was really determined to make it all worthwhile for all us."
NEA spokeswoman Elizabeth Auclair released a short statement.
"We thank the judge for his expedited review of the case," she said.
NEA lawyers cited a contest rule requiring competitors at state and national finals to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents with a valid tax identification or Social Security number, which are needed to receive prizes. A total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends are given at the national finals, including $20,000 for the national champion.
Monga's lawyers argued the NEA's eligibility rule discriminates against asylum-seekers and violates civil rights laws. They said it takes away his right to an education — and specifically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — that should be open to anyone in the country.
The judge agreed Monga would miss a "unique, fleeting, one-time opportunity."
Maine Democratic U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree, who co-leads the Congressional Arts Caucus, had urged the NEA to reconsider its decision to exclude Monga on the basis of his immigration status.
The NEA lawyers noted when Monga was preparing to compete in the state finals in Maine, the Maine Arts Commission contacted the NEA and was told he wasn't eligible to compete but chose to ignore it.
Despite his having a Social Security number, the NEA maintained that Monga was ineligible because he's not a citizen or permanent resident.